High schoolers go on cross-country trip to learn about the civil rights movement

L.A. Cicero EPAAHS students from the Sojourn to the Past

EPAAHS students from the Sojourn to the Past field trip and teacher Rebecca Padnos Altamirano (far right).

When Linda Martínez, a junior at East Palo Alto Academy High School (EPAAHS), describes how she feels after her participation in the Sojourn to the Past field trip, she says she's "empowered." Martínez, who traveled in January with 20 of her classmates and her teacher to the most important sites of the civil rights movement, says that the main lesson she learned was that young people can make a difference. Other classmates expressed similar reactions during a March 3 presentation at school about their trip.

East Palo Alto Academy is a public high school in Menlo Park operated by the Stanford Schools Corporation and chartered with the Ravenswood City School District. This is the fourth year that its students have participated in Sojourn to the Past, a 10-day educational trip through the South. The journey, which the EPAAHS students shared with teenagers from six other schools nationwide, began in Atlanta and continued to Tuskegee, Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma, Ala.; Hattiesburg and Jackson, Miss.; Little Rock, Ark.; and Memphis, Tenn. At each stop, students met civil rights activists such Martin Luther King Jr.'s son Martin Luther King III and Minnijean Brown-Trickey, a member of the "Little Rock 9"—a group of African American high school students who faced down segregationists to attend Little Rock's Central High School in 1957. The EPAAHS students also visited historic sites, such as the spot in Selma where the Rev. James Reeb, a civil rights activist, was killed by a white mob in 1965.

According to EPAAHS teachers Dominique Revel and Adrianne Ratner, the school tries to secure a place for any student who wants to go. In exchange, the teenagers must raise part of the $2,400 trip fee. Each student writes 20 fundraising letters to family members, friends and other potential donors, and the school raises money as well. In preparation for the trip, students also are required to attend about 10 weekly meetings with their teachers and Jeff Steinberg, the founder of the Sojourn project.

Despite the demands of the program, the trip has grown in popularity among EPAAHS students. Only 10 teenagers from the school participated the first year—this year twice as many went. Junior Ashley Dummel went because her aunt had participated in 2006 and said it was fun and educational. "She didn't tell me I'd have a lot of work to do, but I think it paid off a lot," Dummel said.

Sojourn to the Past is not an average field trip because it is so academically rigorous, according to Bonnie Billings, principal of EPAAHS. Students were required to study Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches as well as readers about the civil rights movement. They also were required to complete daily "Reflection Sheets" on the most important thing they learned that day and their favorite quote of the day. "[Today I learned] to fight for how you want to be treated," one sheet stated.

"[The trip] is also rigorous about teaching them about racism and about civil rights," Billings said. "They come back stronger students and stronger individuals. I see evidence of that when they come back and they're not afraid to speak up. They're not silent when they hear racism."

No longer a silent witness

Jessica Garcia is one of those students who is no longer afraid to speak up against racist remarks, such as the n-word. Before participating in Sojourn, Garcia said she and her friends carelessly used that word to greet each other, but now she knows better. "There was this museum where we sat down in a bus and the bus driver would say, 'You, nigger, you need to go all the way back, where you belong!'" Garcia recalled. "Now I can understand their position and say, 'Wow, it's a powerful word.'" Garcia's teachers report having seen her several times explaining to students why they shouldn't use the term. Garcia also said she has had debates with her mother, who was born in Michoacan, Mexico, and is a bit biased against African Americans. Garcia said she thinks she is slowly helping her mother change her attitude.

Billings said her students, who are primarily Latino, can relate easily to what they learn on the Sojourn trip. "I think they see parallels with their lives," she said. "They have to breathe this every day, they have to deal with verbal discrimination." Garcia agreed, affirming that she sees similarities between the fight by African Americans for civil rights and the current struggle for equal treatment by Latin American immigrants. "[This trip] changes us and we say, 'No, we can stop this! We have the power, we have the voice, we can stop this right now,'" she said. As a result of her experience in Sojourn to the Past, Garcia said she and her friends plan to join an association that defends immigrants' civil rights.

Maria José Viñas is a science-writing intern with the Stanford News Service.